East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


The Mask of Dimitrios

I was rather surprised, a few hours ago, finding out that Eric Ambler is almost forgotten in my country.
What a strange fate for one of the fathers of espionage fiction, author of novels from which popular movies were made, and he himself an Academy-nominated screenwriter.


Finding out about this strange state of affairs made me go back to the The Mask of Dimitrios, a novel I read in my first year in university, in a well-thumbed used copy I bought somewhere.
I was familiar with the 1944 movie adaptation featuring Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, but the novel was quite a discovery. Continue reading

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Magic, art & science in the city: Passing Strange

41jzvod73kl-_sy346_And then something happens that disrupts all your plans and your timetables, and it0s OK like that.
In this case, the something was a quick message from my friend Marina, that suggested I check out a book called Passing Strange, by author Ellen Klages.
The book, Marina said, came with the recommendation of Caitlin R. Kiernan.

If the recommendation and the gorgeous cover weren’t enough, I then checked the blurb on Amazon…

San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself from World Fantasy Award winning author Ellen Klages.

Yes, inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy.
Could I not invest two bucks and a half in this book?

And a great investment it was, just as it was a good idea spending a few hours in these two nights to read the book and enjoy its mix of class, elegance and ideas.
Part of the (excellent) series of Tor.com novellas, Klages’ book is a historical fantasy1 set in 1940, and touches on a number of subjects, from topology to weird menace pulps, while tracing the lives of six characters in the shadow of the incoming war and in a society i n which they have a hard time fitting.
Elegantly written, with great dialogue and great characterization, Passing Strange reads like a breeze, and is hopefully a sign that 2017 will be an excellent year for fiction, if nothing else.
Highly recommended.

  1. remind me to do a post about why lots of current fantasy fans wouldn’t recognize Klages’ story as a fantasy, and why this is an absolute tragedy. 

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A girl and a gun, a sword and a sorceress

Igirlgunn my search for a workable definition of sword & sorcery (but it’s more complicated than that) I landed in what is, apparently, a pretty far-away place: David N. Meyer’s A Girl and a Gun: the complete guide to Film Noir on Video.
Published in 1998 by Avon Books, Meyer’s delightful book was essential in building my noir movie collection, and in helping me discover a lot of movies I would otherwise have missed.
And sure, books like The Encyclopedia of Film Noir by Alain Silver (and a lot of other books by Silver and his associates) are more in-depth and technical, but as a fast and easy gateway to noir, Meyer’s almost 20-years-old book remains unsurpassed.

Now, I thought of Meyer’s book because Meyer’s book defines noir through example – and that’s what I usually do with my friends and colleagues when we try and define sword & sorcery. We may start with a working definition or a bit of history (just as Meyer does), but then we end up listing movies and books. Continue reading

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The Nightwalkers

51eIMmQpg3L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Archaeologis and Chinese art expert David Armour disappeared in 1941, in Peking.
He resurfaces in a mission hospital in a rural Chinese province in 1947, with no memory of the previous six years.
He can’t remember anything and nobody seems to know what happened.
There’s stories, though – some say he collaborated with the Japanese occupation forces, others claim he became a guerrilla leader fighting the Japanese.
Back in Shanghai, David will have to patch together the events of his missing years – meeting his estranged wife Adrian, feeling the pressure of a number of parties that want to use him, or take control of his life.
Then there’s the story about the four missing T’ang bronzes whose whereabouts he might know – and have forgotten.
And his other wife – the one he doesn’t remember.
Continue reading

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Other People’s Pulp: The Hawksian woman

62c6a44de21381ca7e7aedd4f06a0a6fIt was all because of Carole Lombard.
So beautiful it hurt, and very talented, actress Carole Lombard1 was the queen of the screwball comedy movies, and back in the days she was the highest paid star in Hollywood.

I think I first got struck by Lombard when I first saw Ernst Lubitsch‘s To Be or Not to Be, and afterwards I tried to track as many of her movies as possible.
I like her very much2.
It was by reading up on Lombard that I got deeper into screwball comedies, the so called sex comedies without sex that Hollywood developed to counter the Hays Code.

What fascinates me to this day is the fact that screwball comedy is sort of the mirror opposite of the noir genre.
Sexual tension, gender politics and the roles of man and woman in society, class struggle and social critique are all there, as is the idea of the male lead being somewhat dazed and confused, and a victim of his own role – it was all there in both genres, played for thrills in noir, and for laughs in screwball comedy. Continue reading